How Vaccine Companies Have Bankrolled Fox News’ Anti-Vaxx Insanity

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

With increasing regularity over the past few months, Fox News has peddled vaccine skepticism and at times outright resistance to its millions of viewers, leading critics to accuse the network of “killing people” as large swaths of conservatives refuse to get vaccinated.

And it turns out that such dangerous rhetoric has, in effect, been sponsored by the pharmaceutical giants involved in developing, manufacturing, and distributing the very vaccines that Fox News hosts and pundits have railed against on a near-daily basis.

According to research provided by liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, some of Fox’s top advertisers include Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Novartis AG. Other top vaccine manufacturers, like Pfizer and AstraZeneca, have run hundreds of commercials on the network since the start of the year and rank among the cable network’s top 150 sponsors.

Most of the commercials were not for the drugmakers’ vaccines, but rather direct-to-consumer advertisements for their prescription or over-the-counter medications.

Johnson & Johnson, which has administered nearly 13 million doses of its one-shot COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, is currently one of Fox News’ top advertisers, ranking in the top 15 to date. As of July 16, the pharmaceutical company has run 1,579 commercials during Fox News programming.

The company’s spots have been spread across Fox’s so-called “straight news” and opinion programs, with the dayside news broadcast America Reports airing the most J&J ads at 192 total, followed by late-night news program Fox News @ Night with 186.

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At the same time, right-wing opinion shows like Fox & Friends and its early-morning and weekend offshoots have also aired hundreds of J&J commercials between them. And hard-right nighttime programs like Next Revolution with Steve Hilton and The Ingraham Angle—all shows that have devoted ample airtime to vaccine skepticism—have featured multiple Johnson & Johnson ads this year.

GlaxoSmithKline is an even bigger Fox advertiser than Johnson & Johnson, ranking in the top five of the network’s sponsors. The multinational pharmaceutical giant is currently in a Phase III trial of the COVID-19 vaccine it developed with French pharma company Sanofi. As of mid-July, GSK has run 2,836 ads on the network, including an eye-popping 1,272 on Fox & Friends alone. It also has run dozens of ads apiece on late-night “comedy” show Gutfeld! along with weekend mainstays Watters’ World, Next Revolution, and Justice With Judge Jeanine.

GSK’s round-the-clock advertising on Fox News even outpaces that of Mike Lindell’s MAGA pillow company MyPillow in terms of the number of ads run on the network.

While nowhere near as prevalent on Fox airwaves as GSK or J&J, Sanofi appears to be more willing than other drugmakers to air its ads during the network’s right-wing opinion shows, which tend to provide far more anti-vaccine resistance and conspiracy theories than their “hard-news” counterparts.

Of the 500 ads Sanofi has run this year on Fox News, 115 have been on Hannity, 53 have appeared in Ingraham’s hour, 43 have shown up on Watters’ World and seven have aired on Tucker Carlson Tonight, a program that has long seen an exodus of blue-chip advertisers due to the eponymous host’s racially inflammatory rhetoric.

Novartis AG, which has entered into multiple agreements to manufacture other firms’ vaccines, has also been a top-20 Fox News advertiser this year, running 1,479 ads, including 198 on Fox & Friends, 34 on Ingraham Angle, and 63 on Gutfeld! Furthermore, it has aired 58 commercials on Fox News Primetime, the network’s early-evening opinion show anchored by a rotation of hosts, some of whom have been the network’s loudest vaccine skeptics.

“Our goal is to reach audiences where they are looking for information. We evaluated our July channel mix and reallocated funds where appropriate,” a Novartis spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “We take an audience led approach to our advertising placements—knowing where our key audiences are looking for information determines how and where we place our content.”

Fox News, meanwhile, is coming off a highly profitable year. In 2020, Fox Corporation’s cable news division saw its revenue increase to $1.49 billion, aided by $441 million in advertising. The ad revenue represented a 31 percent jump from the year before.

In response to this story, Fox News pointed The Daily Beast to a sampling of times in which on-air personalities across dayside and primetime have pushed vaccine awareness over the past few months. In May, for instance, The Five’s Jesse Watters and Dana Perino announced they had been vaccinated, with Watters specifically urging viewers to “just get vaccinated” in order to stop CDC regulations pertaining to summer camps.

Besides a number of hosts and anchors acknowledging they’ve received the vaccine or even taking part in network PSAs encouraging viewers to get their shots, several Fox News guests—such as Chris Christie—have promoted the vaccines during on-air interviews. Additionally, a recent study found that Republicans who watch Fox News are far more likely to accept vaccines than those who consume far-right alternatives One America News or Newsmax.

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Another study from February, meanwhile, claimed that Fox News viewers are just as informed on COVID-19 as those who watch CNN and MSNBC, and that there’s no significant differences between CNN/MSNBC and Fox viewers’ knowledge about vaccines or their acceptance of vaccine conspiracy beliefs.

“FOX News has reported on the severity of COVID-19 as well as on vaccine safety throughout the pandemic, including producing numerous PSAs, primetime specials along with hosting top medical professionals across our platforms to ensure our audience remains informed on all the critical details,” a Fox News spokesperson added in a statement. “Since the heightened threat of the Delta variant, the network has also implemented a vaccine tracker tool along with new PSAs urging viewers to get vaccinated. Our coverage has been consistent throughout with an overwhelming majority of our audience supporting the vaccination efforts.”

But two of the network’s most influential and widely viewed stars, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, have been at the forefront of Fox News’ anti-vaccine coverage for months. The pair and their guests have openly said that the vaccines are dangerous, questioned whether they work at all, and justified Americans’ refusal to get their shots.

While Carlson’s show has long been a welcome haven for so-called COVID contrarian Alex Berenson—known as “the Pandemic’s Wrongest Man”—to peddle disinformation about vaccination and coronavirus mitigation efforts, Ingraham has also hosted her share of supposed experts to fearmonger about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

“There is no reason right now, no clinical reason to go get vaccinated,” cardiologist Peter McCullough declared on Ingraham’s show just last week.

And Carlson—who refuses to say whether or not he’s been vaccinated—and Ingraham are far from the only ones repeatedly promoting vaccine skepticism on Fox’s airwaves.

Amid the Biden administration’s recent push to boost stagnating vaccination rates, nearly 60 percent of Fox segments on vaccines have included claims that undermined or downplayed vaccination efforts, according to one Media Matters study.

Fox & Friends most actively undermined the vaccines, according to the survey, airing 25 segments to that effect, including co-host Brian Kilmeade’s complaint that Biden administration attempts to increase the number of vaccinated Americans were “mind-boggling.”

In fact, over the sample two-week period, Kilmeade made at least 22 separate claims downplaying the vaccines. Ingraham made 18 such claims, followed by Carlson and Fox & Friends hosts Rachel Campos-Duffy, Ainsley Earhardt, Pete Hegseth, and Will Cain, who all made at least 10 claims to similar effect.

Furthermore, Carlson and other Fox personalities have repeatedly railed against the concept of businesses and public spaces requiring proof of vaccinations. Yet, while Carlson has branded such “vaccine passport” concepts akin to “medical Jim Crow,” his own network quietly implemented such a system for its employees last month.

The “FOX Clear Pass,” as first reported by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, allows for Fox News employees to self-report their vaccination status to a network database, which will then allow the employees to bypass the company’s required daily health screenings when arriving at the office.

At the same time, there was a noticeable shift in the tone of Fox News’ vaccine coverage on Monday: While Carlson, Ingraham, and Kilmeade continued to peddle anti-vaxxer rhetoric, a number of Fox News anchors and dayside hosts began to actively encourage the network’s viewers to get vaccinated.

‘I Believe in the Science of Vaccination’: Hannity Implores Fox Viewers to ‘Please Take COVID Seriously’

Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, who has regularly advocated for the vaccines, debunked a series of conspiracy theories that have spread on social media while also defending the Biden administration’s efforts to increase vaccination rates.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who have died have not been vaccinated. And so, what they’re trying to do is… make sure that all the people who have not been vaccinated get vaccinated,” he said Monday morning, much to the chagrin of co-host Kilmeade, adding: “If you have the chance, get the shot. It will save your life.”

Though he simultaneously lent credence to vaccine skepticism and criticized potential vaccine mandates, Hannity also implored his viewers on Monday night to “please take COVID seriously” while declaring that he “believes in the science of vaccination.” Hannity, in fact, has repeatedly made similar comments in recent weeks.

And since then, many of the network’s “straight news” broadcasts have repeatedly highlighted an on-air graphic urging viewers to visit the federal government’s website providing information on immunization sites.

Meanwhile, it would also appear that the Biden administration is taking a backdoor approach in combating the network’s vaccine misinformation by paying to run PSA ads from the Department of Health and Human Services during Fox’s broadcasts.

According to Media Matters, the HHS has run more than 175 commercials on the network since April, in some sense paying Fox News to counter-program the vaccine hesitancy the network has often actively stoked.

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